For one man, saving the earth is all in a day’s work.
“Some people would say that the great challenge for your generation is the fight against terrorism, but my guess is it’s going to be the fight to save the environment — it’s your Cold War,” Gustave Speth said. “It will be a long struggle, but it’s got to begin now.”
In his role as dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Speth seeks to give his students the tools to fight the environmental battle he has charged them with every day. Now, with the publication of his new book, “Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment,” Speth attempts to expand his audience to include the American public.
The book’s title plays on the nautical aphorism “red sky at morning, sailors take warning,” and in an interview with the News, Speth described its message as a wake-up call. He explains in the book’s preface that he “set out to write a book that would help people understand what’s going on in the world of the global environment by telling the story of how things got the way they are and how we can change them.”
The publication of “Red Sky at Morning” on March 10 did not go unrecognized. Both Time and The Economist gave it positive reviews, and The Economist praised it as a “thought-provoking book by one of the grand old men of greenery.”
Members of the environment school faculty also praised the book for its provocative intellectual insight and relevance to the current political climate.
“I think it is a very sweeping statement reflecting a view from one of the real leaders of the environmental movement — one of the people who really launched the movement in the U.S. From that regard it has a lot of credibility,” said Dan Esty, an environment school professor and director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy. “In many ways it’s a cry from the heart about what isn’t being addressed in our current day in age, and there are obviously a set of problems that need greater attention, and I think that’s what Gus is trying to focus on.”
Speth said the book asks five main questions about current major environmental challenges: How serious are they? What has been done about them? Are those actions working? What needs to be done now? And how much time is left? He concluded that the situation is grave.
“The trends today are as bad as they were 20 years ago, except for the protection of the ozone layer and some improvement in population projections,” Speth said. “But on the big issues of climate change, biotic impoverishment, water and fisheries shortages, deforestation — trends are just as bad or worse today.”
Speth said the most important message coming out of his book is that these global-scale environmental threats must be top priorities for people and governments. He called upon people to take control of these problems themselves.
“It’s not a simple thing, but we need to attack the underlying drivers of deterioration,” Speth said. “We need to take control of these issues ourselves and stop waiting on the federal government and the international governing community.”
The book presents a wealth of empowering tools for the general public, Speth said. The final chapter outlines specific steps citizens can take to become more active in the fight to save the environment. The book’s Web site includes links to various references and online resources.
Speth’s recent publication is just another chapter in his career in environmental activism. He began his career as an environmental lawyer after graduating from Yale Law School.
“I had this idea that we ought to start an environmental law firm like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund,” Speth said. “I got some Yale Law students to join with me in that, and we went off to the Ford Foundation and asked them for some money. They gave it to us and we started an environmental group which is now the Natural Resources Defense Council.”
After working with NRDC for seven years, Speth was tapped by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 to join and later lead the President’s Council on Environmental Quality. Speth then taught environmental and constitutional law at Georgetown University before leaving in 1982 to found the World Resources Institute, an environmental policy think tank.
In 1993, Speth became the chief executive officer of the United Nations Development Programme. He served in that position until 1999, when he decided to return to academia.
“I wanted to get back with young people — I had been working for 30 years in the field, and I thought it was time to get back and see if I could contribute to a new generation,” Speth said.
Speth was reappointed last October to a second five-year term as dean of the environment school, where he finds an eager following among students.
“He’s extremely approachable and inspiring,” Elizabeth Martin FES ’04 said. “He’s willing to sit down with any student about what kind of contribution they want to make.”
During his tenure, Speth has expanded the environment school faculty, increased the amount of financial aid available to students, and made the school more global, Esty said. He praised Speth for his guiding spirit.
“He’s created an ambition for the school and a commitment to addressing issues not only in an academic setting, but also in a policy sense,” Esty said. “He’s provided enormous leadership and vision and, in doing so, has helped uplift the school in an enormous number of areas.”